In recent months Russia and Iran, both staunch allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have stepped into Syria’s diplomatic vacuum to play a more active role in forging dialogue between the regime and opposition forces.
Analysts say that time is ripe for a political deal, citing growing signs of regime fragility and the reality of a perpetually hobbled opposition – now stuck fighting both the Syrian regime and extremist forces like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.
Ayham Kamel,l, London-based director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Eurasia Group, spoke to Syria Deeply about Russia, Iran and the outlook for new diplomatic openings in Syria.
Syria Deeply: Russia and Iran have been the most important allies of the Assad government. How has their support kept the regime going?
Kamel: The most important thing is that they’ve been standing as strategic allies, providing the regime with a combination of military and political support to allow it to persist in a very bloody civil war. Without external allies, the balance of power would have been very different in Syria today. Iran and Russia are committed in a long-term and much more structured way to the Assad regime, but their positions are not identical. Russia is more interested in maintaining the structure of the Syrian state and its anti-Islamist identity, while Iran is more interested in maintaining a pro-Assad government in power in Syria. However, they both agree on not allowing an outright victory for opposition forces.
Syria Deeply: Have Iran or Russia’s policies shifted over time? Which way are they heading now?
Kamel: There isn’t a significant change in Iran’s position, at least not in the circles that matter or the decision-makers that are influential when it comes to Syria or regional issues. President Hassan Rouhani definitely has a more moderate position and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has echoed a similar line. They are both more open to compromise on Syria, but they don’t control the foreign policy machine in Tehran. Foreign policy issues are firmly in the hands of more conservative politicians and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as security folks that are interested in maintaining Iran’s network of regional influences. When it comes to Tehran, we are likely to see the same position for the foreseeable future.
In Russia there has been a slight shift over the past 12 months and more encouragement for a political solution in Syria. The Russians think there are ways to de-escalate the Syrian conflict and resolve the destabilizing war. Initially, the Russians didn’t believe there were serious signals that a peaceful settlement would be successful. Today, the Russians are more serious about a diplomatic effort. They see an opening. There is more conflict fatigue, and the international community is more worried about militant Islam and terrorism threats represented by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and the weakness of moderate opposition forces. There is more conviction that the Assad regime is not going anywhere and elements of the opposition and the Assad regime have to eventually find a way to partner in ruling Syria.
There is an alignment between where the U.S. and Europe are heading and where the Russian position is today. The U.S. is giving Russia room to experiment with this political solution as long as it provides the opposition with some compromises, and a guarantee that it’s not just a superficial or void agreement that leaves almost everything on the regime side in place and gives the opposition very nominal and insignificant compromises.
Syria Deeply: How will falling oil prices affect the ability of countries such as Russia and Iran to continue supporting the Syrian regime? Will Iran be forced to reconsider its support for Syria?
Kamel: I don’t think so. Not in any significant way. Falling oil prices have had a serious impact on Russian finances but I think they can withstand these forces. There is determination not to allow falling oil policies to affect strategic policy, especially [in] Russia. The last visit by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Saud al Faisal to discuss these issues was not successful. Russia is not happy with Saudi Arabia maintaining oil production and allowing prices to dip. They see it as a direct challenge or effort to undermine them and support U.S. policy.
The Russian position on this issue is different from the Iranians; they are more willing to see compromises in Syria than the Iranians. Moscow is not attached to Assad as a person or to the entire political structure in Syria, they are open to creative thinking and accept that at least some concrete concessions need to granted to the opposition. Otherwise compromise would merle be an implicit surrender.
The Iranians have been committed to the Assad regime for a long time. Supporting the Assad regime becomes more painful, but it doesn’t fundamentally change what Iran is willing to do.They are unlikely to shift course as a result of financial pressure. Overall, if you look at where oil prices are, there is bound to be some recovery in the future.
On the margins, the fall of oil prices might encourage Iran and Russia to push the regime to explore political options. If there is a way to cut down the costs of supporting the Syrian regime and maintain the most important state structures in Syria, then Russia and Iran would support that.
Syria Deeply: Analysts say that in 2015 the Syrian government is likely to face its toughest challenges since the Syrian crisis started nearly four years ago. Will this compel the regime to engage seriously with a serious diplomatic process?
Kamel: Its difficult to see how 2015 can be the most difficult year since the beginning of the crisis. The most acute challenges facing the regime are behind it. The weakest point was the 2012 bombing of its national security council headquarters killing many of its key decision makers. I think 2015 is a year where there is more room to explore diplomacy. The Syrian government, as it stands today, is facing pressure in terms of casualties on the military side, instability and its affect on the economy, mounting financial costs and combat fatigue.
This has a serious impact on how the regime is willing to engage. In light of the current environment, some concrete compromise is possible. However, I don’t think this will ensure a political compromise. Successful diplomacy involves closing the gap between the two sides on the key issues. It’s less a function of regime insistence, and more of a function of what the regime and opposition want.
Conditions are better for diplomacy, but that’s not a definite recipe for success. There would have to be a formula that could give both sides some compromises and ability to persist or claim victory.
Syria Deeply: What is the state of its support base? Has it frayed over time or grown stronger with the rise of groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra?
Kamel: The Syrian conflict doesn’t involve a stable change in any direction. There are flows of fatigue and encouragement. It’s a cycle. On the regime side, there is a mix of both right now. There is definitely more determination to maintain the current course, but there is a serious sense that there is suffering across Syria on the regime side, not only militarily but with its supporters in the cities like Damascus and with the Sunni business community. The same goes for regime supporters in other cities and the coastal areas. But I don’t think it creates a fundamental shift in the conflict. There is usually an exaggeration as to how the current environment could shift the regime position.
The threat of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS present an existential challenge for the regime. Compromise with these forces is not possible. With other factions, ones the regime can negotiate with, you’ll probably see voices within regime circles that think compromise is a better option.
Syria Deeply:What’s the outlook for Assad himself? Is he, in a way, trapped in the conditions that he himself set?
Kamel: The fate of Assad is only one dimension of the conflict. His departure or persistence in remaining in the presidency is not the most important issue. The most important issue is the shape of the new Syrian state with or without Assad. If the opposition and the regime can agree on that, the Assad issue becomes less consequential. Right now there isn’t agreement on the main structural issues between the opposition and the regime, but it could emerge in the future.
I don’t think support for Assad himself is constant – it changes. In the current environment, there are questions about the policies, leadership and role of Assad, but I don’t see any indication that Assad would leave his position without a clear transition plan that maintains the structure of the current state.Assad most likely has built an image the Syrian nation needing his leadership to survive the war; Although media interviews can sometimes be intentionally misleading, he probably truly believes that he has an essential role in preserving Syria as an entity and saving the Syrian state. It’s a legacy issue for him.